PDN Gear Guide Review: Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH Lens

Aug 16, 2010
By Bob Rose

Leica 35mm f/1.4

When one thinks of Leica, it’s often with regard to the company's long history of producing high-quality photographic equipment and for pioneering a discreet working style to help capture the “decisive moment” (with all due respects to Cartier-Bresson).

So it was with great interest when I heard that the classic Leica 35mm focal length lens had been updated in its also classic f/1.4 aperture. When I visited Leica to pick up a loaner lens and M9 body, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask: why the update?

“The Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 stood out among users as the M rangefinder system’s most popular wide-angle lens, therefore the development of today’s improved version was a natural next step for us," said Christian Erhardt, Vice President of Marketing at Leica Camera, Inc.

Now that I knew why, the question was how good? Of course, Leica's technical data on the new 35mm f/1.4 lens talked about "new aspheric technology" and "focus controlled floating groups" of elements designed to offer better quality at all distances and especially at wider apertures.

I’ve long been happy with slightly slower lenses which keep the size and cost down. Leica’s 35mm f/2 ASPH has a street price of $2,995. The new 35mm f/1.4 is about 25% bigger (but still quite small being only slightly longer than 2-1/4”) and will have a street price of $4,995. Is it worth the difference?

Well the short answer is I’ve used a number of other brands of 35mm f/2’s and 35mm f/1.4’s and reviewed old images for comparison while testing Leica's new model, and can definitely say this is the best 35mm focal length lens I’ve tested, period.

Sum of Its Parts
Aside from the hefty price tag, the new lens comes with a caveat. If you’re using it on a digital body (The Leica M9 if you want to get the full effect), then the capabilities of the lens are further enhanced by the benefits of post processing your images in Adobe Camera Raw.

The fact is you can’t use any images straight out of the camera. The M9 shoots native DNG files and you must import the files into the included copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (or some other separately purchased compatible editing software) to view them. So its quality is really a sum of all the parts and you can’t consider this lens without also noting the particulars of where software can help.

(click to enlarge)

I didn’t create a custom Camera Profile or Lens Profile (both of which would presumably enhance the image quality further) but I sure did utilize a few of the basic develop, lens correction and noise control settings to produce the images that accompany this article. And of course the lens and body are both coded so they work together to produce optimum files.
Shooting with an f/1.4 lens allowed me the opportunity to go to the lowest lighting scenario I could think of – an indoor miniature golf course totally illuminated by UV “black” lights. While I had to boost the camera ISO to 2500, it gave me the chance to capture more than I could imagine, including sharp action. Of course the extra noise from the sensor gave me an artistic look that I did use for a few shots, but it was also very well controlled by the adjustments within Lightroom (a new benefit of V3 software).

One point of interest is the fact that the Leica M9 can’t be coupled mechanically to the actual lens diaphragm so it measures ambient light and plugs the estimated f/stop into the EXIF data of the file. Generally it tracks well but in lower light and unusual lighting situations it doesn’t. No effect on the image but it means the aperture you shot at may not be reported properly (in my black light scenario f/1.4 was recorded by the camera in some cases up to 3 stops off).

(click to enlarge)

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